From Jock Brown’s martial obsession to Gary Newbon in flower, television coverage of past European Championships has had its moments. Not always good moments, but still, moments…

Television evolves in the same way as plants and animals. In order to survive, incremental adjustments are made, adjustments that only become obvious after several generations. The coverage of the European Championships is a case in point.

In the first tournament of 1960, four countries appeared on the empty landscape of the final stages, the Soviet Union’s win officially recognised despite the lack of a British panel of ex-players to see it.

By 1992, eight teams were contesting the final stages and television had joined in properly. To gain a healthy audience, though, you had to have someone with the sobriquet “Big” on the panel. This was important for two reasons: the viewer felt instinctively that someone with “Big” in front of their name was more honest (think of it – would you be more likely to buy a time machine from someone called Big Dave or Tiny Trevor?), and it also conveyed the common touch, the ultimate goal of all middle-class prime-time television producers. For the 1992 Euros, ITV had proudly contracted both Big Jack Charlton and Big Ron Atkinson, with studio presenters Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves making sure you knew it by strewing the epithet around liberally.

With the personality types of Big Ron, Big Jack and Jimmy Greaves debating, there were more possibilities as to what a pundit might say, more jeopardy, owing to a certain self-assured lack of preparation and absence of fear on the part of the opinionated ex-player of that era. Nowadays, with a few notable exceptions, a television pundit can feasibly go through their life needing only the words “food”, “drink” “wee-wee” and “It’s in those fine margins”. Big Jack and Big Ron exuded big game confidence and a winning indifference to their effect on those watching, the latter only going to pieces whenever he had to say “Papin”.

For a very long time, the only television people who approached the public in the wild were Esther Rantzen (patronising pop-anthropology) and Keith Chegwin (expendable), so in 1992 it was faintly pioneering of Saint & Greavsie, to use the brand name, to forage around Stockholm harbour for a spot of local colour.

The brief was to work largely without a script, which had Ian St John regularly returning to his autocue like a child groping for the swimming pool perimeter shelf after a few frantic seconds of doggy-paddle. Ad-libbing in Jimmy Greaves’ case often meant lobbing in a national stereotype accompanied by barrow-boy eye-twinkle. He hailed a blonde Swedish onlooker – “Ulrika!” – and asked her what the weather would be like that afternoon. The Swedish woman, who may have reasonably believed her command of English adequate to this point, was just able to identify the world-famous British sense of humour through a fog of incomprehension. If it had been darker and without a camera crew behind him, Greavesy might have been maced, quite correctly.

A little later, St John, back for another long draw on the autocue, informed his partner they were going shopping with the Scotland squad later in the programme. “Going shopping with the Jocks? They won’t spend much!” quipped Jimmy, and St John tilted his head back a little and laughed for the whole of Scotland.

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As a counterbalance to the vaudeville of Saint & Greavsie, ITV had wavy-haired Elton Welsby in the studio, a man who could sell your parents a vacuum-cleaner just by looking at them. Welsby was the advertisers’ presenter, able to smile and talk at the same time, while never taking the discussion outside the realms of the ordinary.

The ITV theme tune of 1992 complemented the anchor admirably. You Are The Number One is an unholy alliance of guitar and saxophone, its refrain “You are the number one, you are the best, you can believe it”, redolent of the self-affirmation note found on the bathroom mirror of someone with incapacitating low self-esteem, while the chorus sounds like a local radio advertisement for a used car dealership. Find it on You Tube, play it once, and you may be assured that it will be sounding in your head the next time you’re drifting around Farmfoods in jobby catchers looking for the five for a pound deal on 2-Minute Noodles.

The BBC, not wanting guitars anywhere near a formal gathering of the international community, played it safe with Beethoven’s Ode To Joy and, to win an extra point off ITV, managed to edit Denmark in and Yugoslavia out of their title sequence in time.

There were different commentary styles in those far-off days. Brian Moore’s reaction to a deeply forgettable German goal from six yards – “A super goal!” – occupies the middle ground in the transition between Pathe News and Barry Davies. Jock Brown, meantime, seemed preoccupied with the martial qualities of the Scotland team – “McStay went in fiercely – and he had to” and “The wall stood up well, no flinching” – as if he were aware of a creeping late-century dilettantism, possibly linked to the World Wide Web and Converse shoes, threatening to insinuate itself into the national side.

And while Barry Davies and Martin Tyler responded to the excellent Swedish goal that knocked England out with the genuine pleasure of a lover of the game, Brown in his turn met the late Dutch goal that beat Scotland with a professionally sustained high note – unlike today’s commentators who prefer to break a goal against a British team to us as with a low groan, as if it were a tragic, unjustified event occasioned by a small tear in the cosmos.

In Ireland, the RTE panel of Eamon Dunphy and Johnny Giles took a deadpan delight in demolishing Graham Taylor’s excuses after England’s exit. Together, like alchemists, they mixed incredulity with disdain to create a stunning new type of censure and Dunphy, like one of the more conscientious employees of the International Court of Justice, was able to call on previous excuses offered by Taylor and register incredulity and disdain for those also.

And then it was 1996 and what a time to be alive! The finals in England, Dodgy have a new album out and Gary Newbon is in flower. There are 16 teams taking part and the BBC by now are selling international football to all demographics, starting on the opening day with Des Lynam as our father, our lover, our friend: “Hello, it’s June 30th and we’re at Wembley for the European Championship final, England against Scotland. Well, we can dream, can’t we?”

ITV, not realising it was possible for television presenters to talk to viewers, rather than at them, lost the coverage battle immediately. Although they had an “exclusive Blimp” and a carefully casted panel, including Alex Ferguson and Kevin Keegan, only weeks after Keegan’s “I will love it!” boil-over, Bob Wilson’s chairmanship had the tranquilising quality of an elderly but junior undertaker.

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His question, if that is what it was, to John Barnes after England had squeaked through on penalties against Spain, had more than a hint of Private Godfrey from Dad’s Army about it: “I’ve written down here, John, David Seaman for a knighthood?” A few minutes later, “What do Holland have to do to do to beat France, strictly speaking?” has the flavour and syntax of an entity not used to conversing with humans. In the BBC’s Wembley studio, Des Lynam, Ruud Gullit, Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill were in a knee-touching huddle, with Jimmy Hill physically and symbolically in the corner, in side-saddle position, combating the scorn of his knee neighbour, Hansen. The latter wore a permanent smirk while Hill was speaking, a fact that failed to escape Hill and appeared to lead him into a more argumentative, irascible state than usual. Not as telegenic and clubbable as the new punditry breed, by 1996 Hill found himself, against his better judgement, turning into a bit of a character.

By 2021, coverage had graduated to almost World Cup level, with the addition of a pseudo-comedic after-party show on the BBC. Crouchy’s Year-Late Euros: Live promised “a festival of football and fun”, a phrase as unpromising in terms of forthcoming entertainment as “a full programme of military music”. The forced jollity and rehearsed spontaneity on show would have been disagreeable enough without the alarming thinness of the material.

Just when one is wondering how the West can meaningfully call itself a democracy when the level of critical thinking is low enough to accept this, and a thirteenth series of Death In Paradise, with anything other than hot revolutionary ire, one turns to BBC Scotland to find A View From The Euros. The first episode of A View From The Terrace – a small group of men being both funny and knowledgeable about football on camera – must have been as astonishing to those present as the first air flight: a fantastical concept, followed many decades and ill-fated attempts later by the actual achievement.

And in 2021 the European Championship television coverage is near fully upright – players are at the level of sophistication where they can field questions on their internal emotional life, mental health or who has the worst trim in the squad without dropping a stitch. Gary Lineker, a mumbling extra on the panel in 1996, is by now the BBC’s anchor star turn, and his apprenticeship under Des Lynam has not been wasted. His opener for the final - “Shouldn’t you be at church?” – is either an homage to Lynam or an almost verbatim steal, depending on whether you think this is postmodern and meta, or whether you can recognise plagiarism when you see it. Truly it is said – every generation gets the Des Lynam it deserves.